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Study: Scavengers big and small dwell in deep sea

A transparent, swimming  sea cucumber known as Enypniastes was found just over 9,000 feet below the surface in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Associated Press

A transparent, swimming sea cucumber known as Enypniastes was found just over 9,000 feet below the surface in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

NEW ORLEANS — The creatures living in the depths of the ocean are as weird and outlandish as the creations in a Dr. Seuss book: tentacled transparent sea cucumbers, primitive "Dumbos" that flap earlike fins, and tube worms that feed on oil deposits.

A report released Sunday recorded 17,650 species living below 656 feet, the point where sunlight ceases. The findings were the latest update on a 10-year census of marine life.

"Parts of the deep sea that we assumed were homogenous are actually quite complex," said Robert S. Carney, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University and a lead researcher on the deep seas.

Thousands of marine species eke out an existence in the ocean's pitch-black depths by feeding on the snowlike decaying matter that cascades down — even sunken whale bones. Oil and methane also are energy sources for the bottom-dwellers, the report said. The researchers have found about 5,600 new species on top of the 230,000 known. They hope to add several thousand more by October 2010, when the census will be done.

The scientists say they could announce that a million or more species remain unknown. On land, biologists have catalogued about 1.5 million plants and animals. They say they've found 5,722 species living in the extreme ocean depths, waters deeper than 3,280 feet.

More than 40 new species of coral were documented on deep-sea mountains, along with cities of brittlestars and anemone gardens. Nearly 500 new species ranging from single-celled creatures to large squid were charted in the abyssal plains and basins.

Also of importance were the 170 new species that get their energy from chemicals spewing from ocean-bottom vents and seeps. Among them was a family of "yeti crabs," which have silky, hairlike filaments on the legs.

More than 2,000 scientists from 80 countries are working to catalog the oceans' species.

Researching the abyss has been costly and difficult because it involved deep-towed cameras, sonar and remotely operated vehicles that cost $50,000 a day to operate, Carney said.

Once the census is complete, the plan is to publish three books: a popular survey of sea life, a second book with chapters for each working group and a third focusing on biodiversity.

Study: Scavengers big and small dwell in deep sea 11/22/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2009 7:07pm]

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